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Wilson's Border Tales
The Bonnet Rock


If we had lived at the close of the seventeenth century, and if we had been to profession either a sculptor or painter, and had received an order to produce the likeness of an exquisitely beautiful young woman, we should have chosen for our model Mary Rintoul; and, if we had not succeeded in embodying the idea of one of the prettiest creatures that ever came from the hand of nature, the fault would certainly have been with ourselves, not with our subject. We have chosen this mode of endeavouring to convey to the reader an idea of Mary’s personal charms, in order to save ourselves the trouble, and him the infliction, of that most hackneyed and most threadbare of all subjects, the description of female beauty; and we trust it will be sufficiently effectual. Mary was, in truth, a pretty girl—so pretty that we feel, after all, under a strong temptation to describe her at full length; but we will not. She was, at the period when we introduce her to the reader, in her nineteenth year. So far as regarded her condition in life, however, her singular beauty was another proof that nature does not lavish her gifts of person on the children of wealth alone. Her father was but a journeyman wright; yet was his house both a cheerful and a comfortable one; for he was a steady and industrious man, and as such both esteemed and respected in the humble sphere in which he moved. Kirkcaldy, the well-known "lang toun," was the place of his nativity and residence, and is, consequently—a circumstance which perhaps we should have mentioned before—the scene of our story.

Mary Rintoul, as will readily be believed, had many suitors. There were, at least, a score of young men in Kirkcaldy who, had they been asked what was the greatest happiness that could be conferred on them, would, each and all of them, at once have answered—"The hand of Mary Rintoul." But Mary’s affections could not be divided. They dwelt on one alone—and this happy man was William Hay, a young carpenter. The selection did credit to her taste and discernment; for William was in every way an excellent and deserving young man. He was, besides, a remarkably handsome lad, with a pleasant smiling countenance, and of a quiet but cheerful disposition. In short, never were two more suitably matched than Mary and William; nor, perhaps, has any one often seen a more comely pair. Young as they were, they had long loved with the most sincere and devoted affection, and had long looked on themselves as destined for each other. But circumstances had hitherto forbidden this consummation; Mary had nothing, and William was yet but an apprentice. This, however, was a matter which a little time was sure to amend—and it did amend it. William’s indenture expired, and he became a journeyman, at a high rate of wages for the times; and, to crown his happiness, on the very day of his re-engagement in his new character, which was that succeeding the expiry of his apprenticeship, Mary Rintoul, with the full consent of her parents, named to her enraptured lover the day on which she would become his wife. This day—it was now the middle of December—was the Tuesday following what is called in Scotland Handsel Monday—the first Monday of the year.

At the period of our story, which is the year 1691, and for long after, Handsel Monday was a day of general festivity in Scotland. On that joyous day, young men and women congregated at innumerable points, all over the country, for the purposes of merry-making. Mirth and music filled the land from one end to the other; and deep on that day was the debauch of the thirsty, and lively and long continued the dance of the light-heeled and light-hearted.

Handsel Monday was, in short, in days of yore, in this our ancient kingdom, a day of wild and reckless glee over the whole breadth and length of the land. It has now lost much, nearly all, of its original character as a general feature; and perhaps it is as well that it is so; but it may even yet be found flourishing, in primitive vigour, in some remote corners of the country; and, probably, even in some not very distant.

But of all the districts in Scotland that joined in this festive fray—and there was not one that did not—there was none that conducted it with so joyous a spirit or with such hearty good will as Fife. There, the day was celebrated with a glee that was equalled nowhere else, and with a devotion to the joys of the season that completed its claims to pre-eminence. Of the prevailing spirit, then, of the day and the place, the "lang toun," of course, came in for its share. On that day, Kirkcaldy was all agog, all stir and bustle even by the break of day; for the revellers took Time by the firelock, and were early on the field. The particular Handsel Monday to which we refer, was a delightful day, and remarkably mild for the season; a circumstance which rendered it peculiarly favourable for the out-of-door sports—such as throwing the hammer, putting the stone, &c., &c.—that formed the principal amusements of the occasion.

The great scene of these pastimes was the sands of Kirkcaldy; and on the occasion of which we speak, these were, early in the day, crowded with young people of both sexes— the young men to exhibit their strength and skill, by feats of personal prowess, and the young women to witness the triumphs of their lovers. Although, as we have said, the merry groups assembled on the sands on this day were composed mostly of young folks, yet they were not all young. There were amongst them a good many of their elders, who came there to see how their successors conducted themselves, and to revive their recollections of the days that were past. Amongst these was old Gabriel Watson, who, in his day, had had no competitor in throwing the stone. He had beat, by a full yard, Peter Thomson of Pathhead, who was esteemed, until he suffered this defeat, the man of the most powerful arm in Fife; a reputation which was, of course, transferred, as it had fallen, by right of conquest, to Gabriel Watson. But many summers, and winters too, had past since then. Peter was long gathered to his fathers, and Gabriel was now an old man. He was then four-and-twenty—he was now seventy-four; still had not all his strength, by any means, yet departed from him. Gabriel was still a stalworth carle, and still could throw a stone with the best of them. It is not, however, his gymnastic fame, great as that certainly was, that induces us to notice him thus particularly, but a much more interesting circumstance. This is his having been the grandfather of Mary Rintoul—and dear to the old man, as the apple of his eye, was the beauteous, lively, warm-hearted child of his daughter. Peerless—as she really was—Mary seemed in the eyes of her doting grandfather. Often, often, did he lay his withered hand on her young head, smoothing down its golden tresses, and imploring on it all the blessings of Heaven; and no wonder that the old man’s heart was wrapt up in Mary Rintoul, for to him she was ever dutiful, and kind, and tender, and affectionate. To anticipate his wishes was, to her, one of the greatest triumphs, and to obey them, one of the pleasantest occupations of her innocent life.

We have said that, amongst the young people assembled on this day on the Seafield sands, there were a good many old folks. These, however, were not found intermingling much with the noisy, boisterous crowd of their juniors, nor taking anything like an active part in their pastimes. They were, for the most part, otherwise and more characteristically disposed of. At one part of the sands there was a very singular and remarkable rook, called the Bonnet Rock a name it had acquired from its peculiar shape, which bore a rude resemblance to that article of dress—the old Scotch flat bonnet—pointed at in its designation. Its form altogether, however, taking into account its particular position and its adjuncts, gave it perhaps a fully stronger likeness to the roof of a pulpit. It was a thin, flat, projecting table of rock, formed by the action of the sea, which had wrought its way underneath it, leaving the upper part as a covering to the cave which it had thus hollowed out. The edges of this roof on either side had been originally supported by natural mounds of sand; but these had latterly been, in greal part, swept away by a succession of extraordinary high tides. Still the roof remained secure in its airy situation for it had, to all appearance, a sufficient resting-place behind or on the side next the land. The cave formed beneath the Bonnet Rock in the way we have described, was light and spacious, with a natural floor of smooth, white, firm sand. It was thus both a curious, and, in its way, a pleasant place—and the good folks of Kirkcaldy thought so; for it was on the sands around this singular rock that they were assembled on the day of which we are speaking; and this had been the custom there, on Handsel Mondays, from time immemorial. But on these occasions the inside of the cave presented fully as joyous a scene as the out. It was the sort of headquarters of the revellers, where they went occasionally to refresh themselves, and to spend the intervals of the sports, for it was the general storehouse, for the day, of the creature-comforts of the merry-makers—the grand depository of brandy bottles, and of cakes and kebbucks; chairs and tables, too, were then there, and long forms ran alongst its walls, for the accommodation of its frequenters: nay, so complete was its equipment as a banqueting-hall, a large fire blazed at its further end, to drive away the chill air of the place, and to make it look more cheerful, and feel more comfortable. It was here, then, in these hilarious quarters, that the older people were to be found on this day. Seated around the different tables with the brandy bottle before them, they talked over the feats of their youth; and, without being at the trouble of going out to witness the sports of the young men, were content to learn of their progress from the occasional visitors to the cave. But these came so thick and frequent—there was such a constant outgoing and incoming—that the old folks were kept well informed of all that was passing without.

We need hardly say, that William Hay was amongst the youngsters on the Seafield sands on this occasion. Neither need we say, that, he being there, Mary Rintoul would not likely be far off. In truth, William was at this moment in the thick and the throng of a crowd of young fellows, who were eagerly engaged in a trial of strength and dexterity, at throwing the stone; and, within a few yards of him, along with some other girls of her acquaintance, whose lovers were also amongst the athletic, stood Mary Rintoul— her eyes glistening with delight; for William had just thrown the stone a full foot beyond the most powerful of the competitors, at least he who had been hitherto reckoned so.

"He has thrown beyond them a’," said Mary, in a low, modest voice, but with a feeling of triumph, which, though she endeavoured to suppress, her sparkling eye and glowing cheek betrayed. "He has thrown beyond them a’," she said, addressing the girl who stood beside her.

The reply was a disdainful toss of the head—for the defeated party was her lover—and a remark that Jamie’s foot had slipped when he threw the stone, "or it wadna be Willie Hay that wad gang beyond him."

Mary might well have anticipated this want of sympathy in her triumph, on the part of her companion; for she was aware of the attachment between Jessy Bell and James Elphinston; but, in her joy, she had, for a moment, forgotten the circumstance. Jessy’s remark, however, instantly brought this to her recollection, and with it a deeper blush on her cheek. But at this moment, another object suddenly at once engrossed her attention and relieved her from the embarrassing situation in which she stood with her companion.

"There’s grandfather," she exclaimed, running towards the old man, who was now indeed seen approaching the group, of which she herself had just formed a part. Gabriel’s eyes brightened up, and a smile came over his face when he saw her.

"Hey! my little gilpie, are you there?" he said, yielding his hand to the fond grasp of both of hers. "Whar’s William? But I needna ask," he added, with a sly look— "whan ye’re here, he canna be far aff."

Mary blushed, and, hanging down her head, replied that he was "ower there," pointing to the group she had just left.

"Ay, ye little cutty, I thooht sae," said Gabriel, stepping on towards the throng, with his granddaughter in his hand. "The gowk and the tittlin’! Faith, Mary,"he added, as if suddenly reinspired with the spirit and the energy of his youth, by the mirthful shouts which arose from the crowd that surrounded the stone-heavers, "I’se hae a throw yet, for auld lang syne. It’ll maybe be the last. I used to be gay guid at it; and I dinna ken but I may bother some o’ them yet."

Saying this, he dropped the hand of his granddaughter and, pushing his way into the centre of the crowd, exclaimed, "Stand about, ye feckless loons, and let me at the stane. It’s thirty years this very day since I lifted ane; but I hae pith aneuch in me yet, I think, to gie some o’ ye the short throw."

Both the old man himself and his speech were received with shouts of applause; for he was well known, and much and universally esteemed by all who did know him.

"Well done, Gabriel! well done, Gabriel! Faith oor auld friend has spunk in him yet," was shouted from all quarters.

"The deil a ane here’ll match him yet," said another.

"Faith, ye say true there, Andrew," replied Peter Blackie, a man not much Gabriel’s junior, to the asserter of this bold annunciation. "If ye had seen him on this very spot throwin’ the stane, as I have, some thirty-five years since, ye wad be still mair sure ye warna far wrang in saying what ye hae said." Then, raising his voice, so as to be heard by those around him, "I’ll wad a pint o’ the best brandy in Kirkcaldy, wi’ ony man here, that Gabriel gangs sax inches at the very least beyond the best o’ ye. Will onybody tak me up?"

Nobody would, because nobody chose to take up a bet against Gabriel, not from a fear of losing, but from kindly feeling. In the meantime, the old man had stripped his coat and taken his place at the point from which the stones were heaved; and was in the act of poising the latter, previous to discharging it, when he felt himself pulled gently from behind. A little irritated by the unseasonable interruption, he turned sharply round; but the sight and transient expression of displeasure exhibited on his countenance, was quickly replaced by a smile, when he beheld his granddaughter. It was she who had called his attention from behind.

"Grandfather," she said, "I hae brocht ye a wee drap brandy, thinkin’ it micht help ye to throw a wee bit better; for I have often heard ye say, ye aye did that langsyne." And she produced a tumbler from beneath her shawl, in which might be about a wine glassful and a half of the liquor she named.

The old man took the tumbler with a smile of satisfaction but it was evidently more with the giver than at the gift.

"Thank ye, Mary, my dear," he said—"it was very considerate o’ ye, and I’ll tak it with great pleasure. Anything, Mary, would do me good, oot o’ your hands. Here’s to ye a’, lads," he added, at the same time drinking off the contents of the tumbler. "Now," he said, again poising the stone, "by my troth I think I could throw’t owre Inchkeith."

And, in the next instant, the stone was sailing through the air. It alighted. The spot was marked by a deep indentation. A foot-rule was applied; and it was found to be nine inches and a half beyond the furthest previous throw. A shout from the bystanders at once proclaimed Gabriel’s triumph and their satisfaction with his success. Again the stone was put into his hands, again he threw and six full inches more were added to the distance—a result which put all chances of successful competition, with the nervous old man, entirely out of the question. No persuasions, however, could induce him to throw a third time.

"Na, na," he said, laughing, "I’ll keep what I hae gotten. I’m no gaun to risk the honour I hae gained. I’ll throw nae mair, neither noo nor hereafter. Ye hae seen the last o’t wi’ me, lads."

Saying this, the old man resumed his coat; and, taking his granddaughter by the hand—for she had remained beside him throughout the whole of the scene just described—left the ground. On gaining the outside of the throng, they were joined by William, who, although he had not hitherto interfered, had all along been keeping a watchful eye on their motions. Having congratulated the old man on his success, the latter proposed to William that they should adjourn to the Bonnet Rock.

"You and William may gang, grandfather," said Mary, " but I canna. I maun gang hame. I promised my mother

to be hame at twa o’clock, and it’s noo ten minutes past it. I canna gang, grandfather, on ony account."

"Then, if that’s the case, I’ll go home with you, Mary," said William, "and join your grandfather at the Bonnet Rock afterwards."

"Ye’ll do nae sic thing, either o’ ye," replied the old man, who felt himself particularly happy. "I’ll tak a’ the wyte frae your mother, Mary, for keepin’ you; and, since we’re at it, we’ll just mak a day o’t. It’s maybe the last Handsel Monday I’ll ever see. Indeed, it’s mair than likely—though you twa, I trust, ‘ll see mony a ane."

"But really, grandfather, I canna break my promise to my mother; it wad alarm her; she wad think some mischief had befa’en me," said Mary, showing great reluctance to proceed towards the Bonnet Rock, whither the whole party were half unconsciously directing their steps, during this conversation.

"Hoot, your mother’s a fule, lassie, and ye’re anither,’ replied Gabriel, with a sort of good-natured impatience, and, at the same time, taking his granddaughter by the arm, and urging her onwards. Thus pressed, she offered no further resistance; and the whole three were soon afterwards seated at one of the tables in the cave of the Bonnet Rock, amidst a numerous assemblage of friends and acquaintances; and a merry set they were, as any festive occasion ever brought together. Never had the Bonnet Rock, in truth, seen more joyous squad—and many a one it had seen. The roof of the cave rung with the shouts of laughter and glee that rose from the revellers below; and the laugh and the jest went merrily round.

It was known to the most of those assembled here on this occasion, that the marriage of William Hay and Mary Rintoul was to take place on the following day; and the knowledge was now turned to good account in many a good-humoured joke at the expense of the young couple. But the approaching nuptials of the betrothed pair were not thus lightly treated by all. Serious and sincere wishes for their happiness in the married state were expressed by numbers of those present, and "long life to them" drank in many a brimming bumper.

During this scene, Mary and William sat together; and the latter, taking advantage of the obscurity of the place, as it was now getting dusky, had slipped his arm around the waist of his fair companion, and was occasionally whispering into her ear the overflowings of his happiness, of his present and prospective felicity.

At this moment, a new cause of pleasurable excitement struck on the ears of the joyous party in the cave. This was the sound of pipes. Donald Grant, the town piper of Kirkcaldy, and as good a performer as ever blew a chanter, was both heard and seen coming alongst the sands towards the Bonnet Rock, playing, with might and main, the well-known tune of "Maggie Lauder." On arriving at the cave, Donald was received with shouts of welcome by its inmates; but their joy at so timeous and valuable an accession as the piper, was by no means confined to mere expressions of satisfaction with his presence. It soon took a more substantial form; bumpers of brandy and lumps of bread and cheese, short-bread, and currant-bun, were thrust in upon him at all hands. The former, Donald—who was reputed as good a hand at the pint-stoup as at the pipes, and that was excellent—nipped off, one after the other, as fast as they were presented to him; the latter he thrust into the capacious pockets of his greatcoat, till they could hold no more. Thus charged and primed, Donald was ready for anything, and therefore at once agreed to a proposal which was made to him, that he should ascend from the land side, where it was of easy access, to the top of the Bonnet Rock, and play some tunes from that conspicuous and elevated situation.

The idea met with universal approbation; and about a dozen young men, one of whom carried a large flag, eagerly offered to accompany him. One of them, an intimate friend of William Hay, just as he was leaving the cave with the rest of Donald’s escort, called out to the former to come along with them. William smiled and shook his head, without attempting to move. He felt too happily situated where he was, with his arm around his intended bride; and this some of those about him perceived.

"Na, na, faith, ye’ll no get Willie to gang alang wi’ ye, I warrant," said one; "he’s owre wed whar he is." Mary held down her head, and blushed, and jogged William to go, in order to relieve her from the badinage of his lighthearted acquaintance.

"Not a foot, Mary, will I budge," replied her lover; "let them gibe awa there. They say right. I’m better pleased whar I am, and therefore here I’ll stay." And he pressed Mary closer to him.

The last of Donald’s merry escort had now quitted the cave, and their joyous shouts were immediately after heard, as they scrambled up the rock behind. The summit was gained—that is, the roof of the cave; the flag was placed in the centre; the piper advanced to the front, and again struck up the favourite tune of "Maggie Lauder." Inspired by the merry strains, the young men who accompanied Donald began to caper, and dance, and leap about, in all the madness of the moment’s excitement; whooping and yelling with boisterous glee. The first part of the play played, the now half breathless performers assembled in the centre of the flat on which they stood, surrounding the flagstaff, took off their hats, caps, and bonnets, and set up one loud and hearty shout; another immediately followed, and they had already raised the third, when a strange movement was felt beneath their feet. In the next instant, and before any idea or conjecture whatever could be formed of the alarming phenomenon, down, with a dead, heavy crash, went the entire roof of the cave on its ill-starred inmates below crushing every one of them to death; and it would have done so though each had had fifty lives, for the superincumbent mass was of many hundred tons’ weight. Huge fragments of rock, and hundreds of cart-loads of sand, and soil and rubbish, now filled the cave; and all below was silent as the grave, and motionless, where but an instant before all had been thoughtlessness and joy. Here, then, was a dreadful catastrophe—a fearful conclusion to the joyous revelries of the day—an accident unparalleled, perhaps, in the dismal record of mischances. We need scarcely add, that this day of feasting in Kirkcaldy was now turned into a day of sad and gloomy mourning. The reveller, horror-struck, laid down the untasted goblet, when the dismal intelligence reached him; the musician stopped in the midst of his merry strains; and the dancers flew from the scene of levity and mirth to that of death and desolation.

A hundred hands were immediately employed in clearing away, with shovel and pick-axe, the accumulation of rocks and rubbish by which the cave was filled, in the desperate hope that some of those who were buried under it might still be alive. Vain hope! Out of the whole number— upwards of thirty—not one survived. All, all had perished. Nay, not only was life totally extinct, but the bodies were fearfully mangled and dismembered: so much so, that many of them could not be recognised by their nearest and dearest friends. To this, however, there was an exception in the cases of two of the sufferers. These were William Hay and Mary Rintoul, whose bodies were found entire and untouched Their death had been caused by suffocation, as they were found deep embedded in a bank of sand; sitting as they sat when death overtook them, close by each other, with William’s arm still around the loved object of his affections.


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